Sunday, August 11, 2019

422. Karposi's Sarkoma, a Deadly Mystery


Work continues on my next nonfiction title.  The exciting front cover is done, I have okayed the interior design, and have offered suggestions for the back-cover blurb.  I'll say more, once a few basics have been settled.

To see my Facebook personal page, go here.  To see my new Facebook business page, go here.  Silas's head and mine are cut off, but at least you'll see the books.  (Brooklyn Book Festival, 2018.)  Sometimes these links work, and sometimes they don't.  Good luck!

So now that I've got a Facebook business page, what do I do with it?  Any suggestions?  Of course Facebook wants me to do ads, so as to put shekels in their coffers.

Small Talk

          I haven't small-talked for quite a while, even though small talk is usually preferable to big talk, being easier to take.  I thought I would mention two former posts, one that used to be the most visited one on the blog, and the one that replaced it.  The no. 1 post today is #125, "Remarkable Women: Eliza Jumel."  Its popularity is quite understandable, since it tells the story of a prostitute's daughter who became the friend of two ex-kings and a future emperor.  The main problem in telling it is deciding which version of Madame Jumel's many accounts of her origins and early years we should believe; I did my best.  Her story has great appeal for feminists today.  (To read the post, go here.  It also appears as chapter 13 in my nonfiction title Fascinating New Yorkers.  For this and my other books, go here.)

          The post that used to rank no. 1 is more controversial. Originally published as #43, it is now republished as #239: "Man / Boy Love: The Great Taboo."  When I self-published my first nonfiction title, No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015), I wanted to include the post as a chapter, but Mill City, the outfit helping me self-publish, refused to include it, if the book was published under their name; they feared legal repercussions.  I was free to publish it under my own name, but I chose not to, since this would have involved inventing a publisher, acquiring ISBNs and bar codes, and other complications.  What did Mill City fear?  Probably, a lawsuit by parents whose underage son had been molested by an older man.  But I only endorsed completely consensual relationships then, and still do now.  To fully grasp my position, you have to read the post. I much regret that it never appeared in the book.  (To read the post, go here.  I am not responsible for certain oddities in the text. Blame my computer.)

             Karposi's Sarkoma, a Deadly Mystery

         A few weeks ago I was visiting the public library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street for the first time in years.  Going down a long third-floor hallway whose walls were covered with material celebrating the Stonewall riots of fifty years ago, I entered the north hall of the ornate reading room, en route to room 328, the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts, at the very end of the room.  There, being expected (one doesn’t go there casually), I signed in and was admitted.  A hushed atmosphere prevailed, and only one or two other patrons were present, their nose deep in a manuscript.  I showed my I.D., took a seat, and waited, armed only with a pencil and a sheet of paper (nothing else, pens included, is allowed).  Soon they brought me the item I had come to see: The Spencer Beach and Barry Leach memorabilia, 1976-1985, a single file of AIDS-related correspondence, photographs, and memorial cards.  Why did this carefully preserved material interest me?  Because I had known both Spencer and Barry, but only a day or two before, in googling Spencer’s name to verify the year of his death, had I discovered the existence of this file.  To explain, I’ll have to leap back in time to 1982, and then even further back to 1940.

         In February 1982 I got an invitation from Barry Leach, a West Village neighbor and acquaintance, notifying me of a memorial service for his partner Spencer Beach.  I was stunned.  I had known Spencer since seventh grade back in our home town, Evanston, Illinois.  I hadn’t seen Spencer for a year or two, didn’t even know he was sick. The service would be held at St. Luke in the Fields, an Episcopal church on Hudson Street near Christopher in the West Village, but a short walk from my building.  I knew the church, had often walked in its gardens.  Of course I would go.    

         Spencer and I had met in seventh grade in 1940 and went through junior high and high school together.  He was dark-haired, full-faced, fleshy, well-mannered and witty, but in appearance anything but tidy.  Though bright, at school he was always in trouble, usually because he talked too much – wittily, but much too much.  Just to get him from one classroom to another was a problem.  He was not allowed to walk with the other boys; instead, while the boys filed down the hall, another boy in our class – a born disciplinarian, as tight-lipped and strict as Spencer was lackadaisical and loquacious – was assigned to march him through the halls.  Stories of Spencer’s misadventures at school regaled my mother for years; she thought them outrageously funny.

         Spencer’s refinement was made apparent to me one week when, quite by chance, I left a handkerchief at his house and another at the home of a classmate and friend, Dick Sherill.  Dick returned the handkerchief, soiled and crumpled, and held at arm’s length between two fingers, with a look of extreme distaste.  But Spencer returned the other handkerchief, folded neatly and freshly laundered, with a faint trace of cologne.  Yes, for a thirteen-year-old male, he was exquisitely refined.  And as final proof of it, he alone of all my friends said “Excuse me” if he farted.

         During those pre-high-school years, while other boys tossed footballs or slugged baseballs in dreary vacant lots, Spencer and I were doing fantasy skits where he might be the king of some imaginary country, and I his treacherous prime minister, scheming to overthrow him.  Enlivening our drama, if we were at my house, was my mother’s handsome black cape from France, which, when draped from Spencer’s shoulders, marvelously enhanced his royal dignity.  And when it cloaked my mischief, I smiled cunningly from its ample folds, the very essence of treachery and deceit.  We were, of course, gay, though we didn’t know it.  At the time I was actually attracted to girls, my interest in them lacking just one essential: good old hard-core lust.

         Spencer’s affinity for royalty, especially British royalty, was longstanding and pronounced.  In his young years he had posed as a monarch, improvising a crown and scepter, and bribing his younger sister to attend him as some kind of courtier or functionary.  And when we were in his bedroom, he would interrupt our trivial talk with the sudden reverential announcement, “And now we are going to look at my scrapbook of the coronation.”  From a desk drawer he then produced a large scrapbook full of newspaper clippings, both articles and photographs, reporting the coronation of King George VI in 1937. 

         The photos showed legions of yeomen of the guards with long pikes, and horse guards with plumed hats, attending an ornate centuries-old carriage – solid gold, Spencer assured me – drawn by four teams of horses.  Inside the coach, barely visible, was the soon-to-be-crowned king.  Then, inside Westminster Abbey, Spencer’s slightly blurred photos showed hosts of ermine-caped dignitaries, the duke of this and the bishop of that, and the future king and queen with long trains carried by attendants.  Spencer explained each photo: the anointing of the king with holy oil, then his receiving a sword, a royal orb, a gold girdle, a mantle, and finally, from the venerable hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the crown.  Adorning his noggin now was a monstrously big hunk of gold, silver, jewels, and ermine-trimmed velvet that I would have hated to have burdening my brow.  At the end of the ceremony the solemn-faced king seemed overly garbed and overly whelmed by all this paraphernalia, but Spencer described each object in awed tones that precluded any criticism.  Finally, with great care and solemnity, he shut the scrapbook, as if he had just witnessed the ceremony himself.  He had shown me, I later realized, Britain’s last great splurge of pomp and circumstance, before the sobering horrors of the war.

File:Crowning of George VI.jpg
The crowning of George VI.
From an illustration of the time.

         Also distinguishing Spencer was his talk.  Always entertaining, it was superior, unique.  He told me

·      How according to a contemporary chronicler, Queen Elizabeth of England “taketh a bath once a year, whether she needeth it or no.” 
·      How he once heard his matriarchal grandmother comment to his mother on Edward VIII’s abdication of the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite already divorced once, with a second divorce pending: “He has abandoned the ship of state for a tramp steamer!”  (Spencer’s obsession with royalty was obviously a family addiction.)
·      How in Victorian times the verb “sweat” was too gross to be used for humans.  “Animals sweat, people perspire, and young ladies glow.”
·      How the young Chopin died of a venereal disease contracted from his mistress, George Sand.

This last, patently untrue, he probably told me so as to see how gullible I was.  When entertaining stories came from him, I was probably much too gullible.

File:Vincenzo Laviosa - Duke and Duchess of Windsor - Google Art Project.jpg
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, their titles after
 his abdication.  Does she look like a tramp steamer?

         Years passed, and we went our separate ways, first to college and then, me to Europe and New York, and Spencer to the Army.  Yes, Spencer, so well-mannered, so dignified in his monarchical fantasies enhanced by my mother’s cape, served two years in the Army!  It was the Cold War, and only my 4F status due to a heart murmur kept me out.  When I saw Spencer later, gone was his childhood obsession with royalty, though not his manners and deftness of speech.  In the most matter-of-fact way he assured me that he could operate thirteen infantry weapons of the United States Army.

         In the 1970s Spencer, now in his forties, got in touch with me again.  By now Spencer and I were long since out, and he and his partner Barry were living at 100 Bank Street, but a short distance from where I and my partner Bob were living.  Of course we met and socialized.  Spencer’s partner, Barry Leach, struck me as youthful for his years (he was in his fifties), but also wise, mature, and compassionate.  A recovered alcoholic, in the spare time his regular job allowed him, he worked closely with Alcoholics Anonymous.  In talking about his work Barry often quoted the Serenity Prayer adopted by AA, which is usually attributed to the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."  

File:Logo AA.svg

         Though he had never had a problem with alcohol, Spencer was fascinated by AA and its work, and was now totally devoted to working with Barry to help gay friends and couples who were fighting alcoholism.  Their work involved close friendships, counseling, and meetings animated by an almost religious fervor -- a communion that functioned on three levels simultaneously: social, emotional, and spiritual.  This was not my world or concern, but I wished them well.

         I had not seen Spencer for a year or two when Barry sent me the invitation to Spencer’s memorial service, to be held on February 21, 1982, at St. Luke in the Fields.  When I went, I found a large basement hall filled with a crowd that included Spencer’s three siblings; Barry presided.  As announced in the invitation, it was not a religious service.  Tributes were paid to Spencer, and people were invited to speak.  Many gay friends praised Spencer for his help in their recovery from alcoholism, even telling of how, although sick and bedridden, he had called a meeting of one group and announced from his sick bed, “No self-pity!”  Having long recommended the Serenity Prayer to others, he was now living it.  Put off by all the AA participants, one man in his forties got up to declare, “I’m a two-fisted drinker.”  This bothered no one; they were used to such comments from the non-addicted.

         After many others had spoken, I got up and told them of my long friendship with Spencer, and of his misbehavior at school.  “Spencer terrorized that school,” I announced, with comic exaggeration that was at times close to the truth.  Then, shifting rhetorical gears, I told of his cult of royalty, especially British, ending with his reverential announcement, “And now we are going to look at my scrapbook of the coronation.” 

         At the end of the memorial service, Spencer’s sister Ellen, the only sibling old enough to remember me, called me over and insisted with a smile, regarding her brother’s behavior at school, “It wasn’t as bad as that.”  I too smiled, but having witnessed it, I knew what I knew.  Barry thanked me, seeing in Spencer’s antics at school the seeds of his later spunk and determination to help his troubled friends.  After the service he went off on a cruise with a woman friend to relax and take stock of things, now that his partner was gone.

         Spencer had died on January 1, 1982.  Instead of sending flowers, he asked his friends to make donations for Karposi’s Sarcoma research.  What Karposi's Sarkoma was, I had no idea, but whatever it was, I assumed that Spencer had died of it.  A mystery, and a deadly one.  Only later, as word of the AIDS epidemic spread, did I realize that Spencer was one of its first victims in the city.  At the time of his death, the term “AIDS,” meaning Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, hadn’t even been invented.  It was first used by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a statement dated September 24, 1982, some nine months after Spencer’s death.  And only in 1984 would HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, be identified as the cause of AIDS.  But already, on March 4, 1983, the CDC had announced that AIDS primarily afflicted homosexual men, injection drug users, Haitians, and hemophiliacs.  And talk of the Gay Plague began.

         Karposi’s Sarcoma, I have since learned, was one of the AIDS-defining illnesses of the 1980s.  A skin cancer discovered by Moritz Karposi, a Hungarian physician, in 1872, it was an opportunistic infection facilitated by the patient’s weakened immune system.  Caused by a virus different from HIV, it was presumably spread through saliva.  “Deep kissing” by gay men and bisexuals was thought to be responsible.  When hospitalized for tests in 1981, Spencer had been given two diagnoses: Karposi’s Sarkoma and lobar pneumonia.  Pneumonia could be treated with antibiotics; KS, being viral, could not.  Though his relationship with Barry was solid, from stray remarks of theirs I gathered that Spencer and Barry had met in a gay bath house, and that their relationship was open, allowing each partner casual adventures on the side.  This may have made them vulnerable, whereas Bob and I, being strictly monogamous, were not.

         So there I was in 1982, witnessing one of the first AIDS deaths in the city, without even knowing it at the time or having heard the terms “AIDS” and “HIV.”  Both terms would soon become a part of the city’s and the world's daily vocabulary for many years to come.

File:AIDS cases worldwide 1979-1995.png
Chart showing the spread of AIDS
in the late 1980s and 1990s.

        In 1985, through a friend I learned that Barry Leach had died of a heart attack.  His death and Spencer’s were a great loss to the gay community.  They had worked so hard and done so much for so many.  For me personally, with Spencer died a part of my youth.

Coming soon:  Five Things I Hate, with commentary.  And Five Weird Things I Love.

©  2019  Clifford Browder

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